BAALBEK, Lebanon – Syrian troops and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies captured a strategic border town Wednesday after a grueling three-week battle, dealing a severe blow to rebels and opening the door for President Bashar Assad’s regime to seize back the country’s central heartland.
The regime triumph in Qusair, which Assad’s forces had bombarded for months without success, demonstrates the potentially game-changing role of Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war. The gain could also embolden Assad to push for all-out military victory rather than participate in peace talks being promoted by the United States and Russia.
The Shiite militant group lost dozens of fighters in the battle for Qusair, underlining its commitment in support of Assad’s regime and edging the fight in Syria further into a regional sectarian conflict pitting the Middle East’s Iranian-backed Shiite axis against Sunnis.
Most of the armed rebels in Syria are members of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad has retained core support among the country’s minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, along with Christians and Shiite Muslims.
The overt involvement by Hezbollah, which is heavily invested in the survival of the Damascus regime, has raised tensions considerably in Lebanon, where the militants have come under harsh criticism.
The group openly celebrated Qusair’s fall on Wednesday.
The White House on Wednesday night condemned the town’s capture and said Hezbollah’s involvement threatens Lebanon’s stability.
Spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement that Assad’s regime couldn’t wrest control of the town alone and had to rely on help from Hezbollah. He said Syria’s government must allow the U.N. and others to evacuate Qusair’s wounded and provide medical treatment.